Every year the winners of West Virginia’s prestigious Golden Horseshoe award are honored in an annual knighting ceremony. The sword used for this ceremony had no West Virginia significance. Until now.
This year the ritual was performed with a new sword — designed and built by West Virginian high school students.
Avery Nine, a recent graduate, and Jillian Eicher, and rising senior at Musselman High School, designed the sword that will be used to knight all future winners of the Golden Horseshoe.
A horse’s head sits at the base of the sword’s handle. Its mane cascades down the grip, forming a knuckle guard.
West Virginia’s state crest is positioned at the bridge between the blade and the handle. The crest is hugged by a horseshoe, both fashioned in gold.
Nine and Eicher’s design placed first among five finalists in First Lady Cathy Justice’s Golden Horseshoe Sword Smithing Contest. The contest was the 10th installment of the First Lady’s Student Artist Series.
West Virginia artist-blacksmiths Matt and Tessie Wallace of Wallace Metal Works sat on the panel of judges that chose the sword.
“The winning sword had various elements to do with the state of West Virginia and the Golden Horseshoe contest itself,” said Matt Wallace. “They took it upon themselves to make the hilt of the sword the head of a knight.”
The Wallaces judged the swords as artwork. Tessie Wallace said it was difficult to choose. Each sword had qualities that made it number one.
“For me, the criteria was how well they incorporated the theme of the Knights of the Golden Horseshoe, since it was gonna be a ceremonial piece,” she said.
The Musselman pair learned about the contest last minute and never expected to win.
“We were extremely shocked to discover that we were finalists. We didn’t think we were going to make it as far as finalists let alone the winners of the competition itself,” Eicher said.
But from the materials to the colors, every element of the sword’s design was intentional. They wanted the sword to represent both the working man of West Virginia and the Golden Horseshoe.
“We chose the colors that we did because we wanted it to be more rustic. We wanted those golds, those browns to really come out,” Nine said.
When the girls’ drawing was named a finalist, it was time for the sword to come to life. This project was given to a group of welding students at the James Rumsey Technical Institute.
“We had to do what [teacher] Mr. Albright liked to call ‘bridging the gap between fantasy land and reality.’ Basically just taking aspects of swords that we knew wouldn’t work and changing them to where they would be efficient,” said Gabriel Eller, one of the students tasked with building the sword.
Eller is a recent graduate of Washington High School in Jefferson County. Before graduating, he was the foreman in the James Rumsey Technical Institute’s welding program. The program is run as a simulated workplace where students are treated like adults working in the field.
At first Eller found the task before him daunting. He had never made a sword before.
“I used to sharpen sticks in the woods when I was young, just messing around, but that would be about the closest thing I could come to, to making a sword,” Eller said. “I had no experience whatsoever. As a matter of fact, none of us did.”
Eller and his peers weren’t a sword smithing class. They had no way to forge a sword. So, through a process of trial and error, they found a way to build it using the materials that they did have.
“It was cool to see us getting out of our comfort zone and us making something come to life that we had never done before,” he said. “It was completely foreign to us but we still persevered.”
The 3-foot 6-inch blade is made of ibeam steel. The students used a saw to strip cut the metal perfectly straight and a hand grinder to grind the metal to the exact width of five eighths of an inch.
They had to get creative when they made the handle. Originally Nine and Eicher envisioned a wooden handle, but the contest’s weight requirements meant wood would make the sword too heavy.
To solve this problem, Eller and his peers decided to 3D print the handle and the horse’s head at its hilt.
“I thought that was pretty cool,” he said. “Pretty unique to have something from James Rumsey come straight on this sword.”
Representing the West Virginia working man in the sword was also very important to Eller.
“I really wanted to capture the essence of West Virginia. It was founded off the backbone of the working man and I just wanted to capture that,” he said.
For this reason, Eller and his teammates chose not to give the sword a mirror finish. Instead they allowed the sword to keep its marks, sculpts and nicks.
To keep the blade’s high carbon steel from rusting, they finished the blade with a protective clear coat.
“You can make it look good. You can get it shiny. You can make it look like it just came up off the showroom floor off of a movie, whatever,” he said. “But I really thought that keeping it as rustic as possible while still keeping the artistic value of the sword would make it worthwhile.”
The sword was used for the first time at the 2022 Golden Horseshoe knighting ceremonies last Tuesday to knight over 200 of the winning eighth graders.
The sword was presented by Randall Reid-Smith, curator of the West Virginia Department of Arts, Culture and History.
State Superintendent of Schools Clayton Burch knighted each of the students at the ceremonies.
The five finalist swords and the retired sword will be on display at the West Virginia Culture Center on West Virginia Day on June 20.